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The Top 5 Most Iconic Dollar Bill Designs, Part 1

Much like the cent – or as it is more commonly known, the penny – the one dollar bills/bank notes made throughout the United States’ history are some of the most highly collected notes.

Perhaps one thing that draws collectors to the $1 note is that it represents simplicity and nostalgia.

Throughout much of US history a single dollar bill had actual purchasing power. Picture the days of five and dime stores on many street corners: in those days, before and after the turn of the century, a single dollar represented, in some cases, a day’s pay. It also represented the ability to purchase many of the things folks bought back then, like a fresh ice cream soda, tooth powder, a fine cigar, a turn on an amusement ride, or a favorite tune on a Nickelodeon piano.

As America changed through the years, so too did the $1 bill. There are five dollar bill designs that rank among the most iconic. I’ll be presenting each in this new series, The Top 5 Most Iconic Dollar Bill Designs. This is Part 1.

The First “True” $1 Bill: 1862 $1 Legal Tender Note a.k.a. “Greenback”

The 1862 $1 Legal Tender note bears the photo of Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under Abraham Lincoln.

1862 was perhaps one of the darkest years in United States history.

Not only was the Civil War raging, it wasn’t going very well for the Union side. Despite an inferior number of forces the Confederate Army under command of Robert E. Lee continued to defeat the larger Union Army of the Potomac. The Union did manage to win a victory in the Battle of Shiloh but with casualties over 20,000 men on both sides it only served to highlight the uncertain future of America.

This fear was reflected in all aspects of life including money.

At the outbreak of the war civilians began hoarding every piece of hard coin they could get their hands on. It became difficult for merchants to even be able to make small change. Numerous fixes were attempted, from small tokens issued by private companies, postage stamps in lieu of currency, and paper money.

Paper money was not a new thing to people in 1862.

Paper notes had existed since the days of the early colonies and became mass produced in the 1830s through the 1850s. Prior to the 1862 Legal Tender notes, each individual bank or money issuing association printed, signed, and cut their own bills. These notes were only as good as the banks that issued them, and because anyone could create a bank, that meant that in some cases the bills were utterly useless.

This created a messy system of “dollar” notes that weren’t necessarily worth a dollar.

A merchant in the 1850s would have needed a ledger that tracked the reputation of various banks and which notes carried what amount of premium compared to others. John’s Lumberjack Bank of Ohio might have only been worth 15 cents per dollar issued while Billy’s Railroad & Canal Bank of Kalamazoo might have been reputable enough to trust at 75 cents on the dollar. This system was confusing and inefficient, and nobody wanted to be caught with a useless “shinplaster” note issued by a wildcat bank that showed up and quickly shut its doors. However, the idea of federal regulation was seen by some as anti-American.

The birth of the Greenback was an attempted solution.

With a small change crisis, a war situation that didn’t look promising, and the entire fate of the Union uncertain, the first true American $1 Legal Tender note was issued in an attempt to fix the economic crisis that was brewing. This note was referred to then, and still is now, as a “Greenback.”

Reverse Side of the $1 Legal Tender “Greenback”

Notice the very evident use of green ink.

Advice for collecting $1 Legal Tender Notes

Are you considering adding greenbacks to your collection? $1 Legal Tender notes are a wonderful item to consider for any coin and currency collection because they are so rich in United States economic and Civil War history. It should be noted that many of these notes were printed, and many of them circulated extensively, so finding a budget appropriate example is not too challenging. But patience in cherry picking a nice example for the desired grade is highly recommended as many notes have been doctored or damaged over the years with lots of low grade specimens showing signs of haphazard repair such as patched holes or taped-over splits and tears. Some pinholes may be noted but unless excessive should not be an issue.

Finding a wholesome note will cost a little more but in the end it will be a much more satisfying note to own.

Although poor condition notes can be found for less than $200, budget-minded collectors should aim for a problem-free note in VG or VG+ which will certainly show wear but will still have plenty of appeal as a type example. These can still be found under $300.

More advanced collectors may consider hunting down a note in the mid to high VF range which can cost between $400-750. In this grade the note will really have strong appeal. At this level and beyond, certification by PMG or PCGS is highly advised, as is seeking an example that isn’t stained or soiled. Nice paper quality notes will be more costly but will certainly carry more eye appeal.

Finally, for the truly advanced collector, it is quite challenging but still possible to find lightly circulated (AU) notes, or fully crisp uncirculated examples of $1 Greenbacks that show sharp corners and no folds. This is where they get truly rare as there is virtually no reason why all of these notes shouldn’t have seen at least some circulation. Yet there are a reasonable number of choice uncirculated pieces on the market that can be had for a few thousand modern greenbacks!

For a true overachiever seeking a show stopping investment piece, the $1 Legal Tender Greenbacks have a scant few examples that come up for sale every now and then in the 67 grade range with EPQ – Exceptional Paper Quality designation. Because of the iconic nature of these notes you should expect to bid in the $20,000+ range to buy a finest grade specimen.

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